Retreat From Moscow
World of Interiors

"This is my temple. In it I evoke my own lost Russia. Bit by bit, I'm buying back the past." Thus Alexandre Vassiliev, grinning broadly, applies a pre-emptive short circuit to any glint of irony that might appear in the eye of a visitor looking round his home. In the event, the said home is a small 1930s council flat, which forms part of a cheap Porte de Vanves block allocated to artists by the Paris municipality.

Alexandre is fully aware that people find him eccentric, and he slips into the role the moment he opens the door. He is festooned in cameos, over two or three layers of embroidered velvet waist coating. With his rolling R's and loony goatee, he more nearly resembles an Orthodox priest than the hard-up theatre person he is.

Alexandre has an unquestionable feel for mise en scene. By profession he is a creator of decors and of costumes for operas, ballets and films. Recently, in Istanbul, he won the Turkish equivalent of an Oscar for his work, but he has worked in at least eighteen other countries, traveling to, among other places, Santiago de Chile, Macao, Reykjavik, Oslo, Osaka, Vilnius and Lisbon, and eventually teaching the history of costume in Brussels, Istanbul and at the Royal College of Art in London.

Alexandre's father was a painter and decorator at the Bolshoi, and his mother was an actress. In due time he found himself enrolled as an art student at the Moscow Theatre Studio founded by Stanislavsky in 1898. When he was twenty, he embarked on a career with the Moscow Dramatic Art Theatre. At the time he was still living at home surrounded by his parents' Empire mahogany furnishings. "Russians," he opines, "have always thought mahogany the most beautiful thing." The elder Vassilievs never cared much for furniture and objects, but early on their son developed a taste for garbage-sorting. "At the time most Russians were busy jettisoning their past," he recalls. "I went the other way. I profited from the misfortunes of my compatriots, indeed I stumbled on my first icon when I was only eight years old, and thereafter I slowly built up a hoard of my own."

In the 1970s, Alexandre became increasingly aware of the wide world outside Russia. Before long he had married a French girl and was in Paris with a small suitcase. Inside the suitcase were drawings, slides and a short film about his work.

"The quality of life in the French capital took my breath away. I met scores of fabulous people and found work immediately at the Theatre des Champs Elysees, the Cartoucherie and the Festival d'Avignon, working on ballet productions and films." Shortly afterwards he and his wife separated. Alexandre decided to stay in the West for the duration.

He's been at the Porte de Vanves apartment for twelve years now. The overall effect is grandiose, even a trifle melancholy. "Of course it's completely theatrical," he admits. "Remember, although I grew up and completed my studies in the post-war Soviet Union, I'm still completely engrossed by the past."

His three small rooms are as satisfactory and charming as three polished acts of a Chekhov play. The totally 19th-century atmosphere has echoes of Madeleine Castaing, who for Alexandre was quite simply the greatest. "I had no idea one could create a complete decorative framework just like that and I learned all about decorating from you, from The World of Interiors"

The entrance to the apartment is in emerald green, or rather malachite, in the classic Russian bourgeois manner of the 1840s. It opens, through a pair of double doors (painted glossy white like the window frames and skirting boards), on to a salon of cochineal red verging on orange: this latter was inspired by a small room at Manuel II's Palace of Cintra in Portugal. By contrast, the adjoining blue room is more Russian than Russia herself. "I find it romantic... I saw the same shade of blue in the houses of three different ninety-year-old ladies, for all of whom I had the greatest respect: one was a baroness in St Petersburg, one was an emigre ex-dancer in Paris, and one was a former cabaret singer in Moscow. They all explained to me that their blue began as the ultimate fashionable color in 1820, was dropped for a few decades, and then was revived after the return of Nicolas 11 in 1910. As far as they were concerned nothing in the world set off mahogany as beautifully as that particular blue! "